‘Sweat’ Still The Standard
By Patrick Hurley
The lingering racial tensions of an ever shifting America takes center stage in Sweat, the 2017 Pulitzer-Prize winning play by Lynn Nottage, playing now at the Mark Taper Forum.
The story is the stuff of traditional theatrical fare. Starting in 2008, the story is a mystery about a broken friendship between two men, both of whom have recently been released from prison. First, there’s Jason (Will Hochman), a white man with a swastika tattoo on his face, put there in prison so as to be able to fit in with the white supremicist crowd. and Chris (Grantham Coleman), an African-American who is telling his parole officer the story of how he has recently run into his old friend Jason, and how eight years prior, a story unfolded that landed them where they are today. Flashback to the year 2000.
Set mostly in 2000, in a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, a factory town on its last legs about to succumb to the fate of towns just like it all across America at that time. The bar is run by Stan (Michael O’Keefe), a man who suffered a severe accident at the factory years before. But his connection to it is what drives most of his regular clientele, including Jason’s mom Tracey (Mary Mara), a woman whose family has worked at the factory for generations, and her best friend Cynthia (Portia), who happens to be Chris’s mom. These two women are the very embodiment of middle America. They are both hard working boot strap kinda gals, and in 2000 their sons are joining them at the factory. So there’s a familial bond of loyalty that drives the motivation for all four of these characters. Which is meant to set the stakes for when race all of a sudden becomes an issue. Cynthia’s estranged husband, Brucie (John Earl Jelks), a man with a pretty bad drug habit, and their friend and co-worker Jessie (Amy Pietz), an excessive alcoholic, and comic relief, round out the group of regulars at this particular bar.
The story is mystery-lite, as we watch the first act unfold, we are drawn into a world where loyalty reigns above any racial tensions, which are starting to peek through everyday conversations. Even as we watch Chris and Jason spending most of their time together, they behave as brothers, complete with a dance they’ve choreographed for a birthday. What is interesting about the set up of Act One is how dated it feels. It’s a continuation of the plays that were written in the 1940s that were suggesting modernity to be a rising crisis in America. The difference, of course, is that this play is written from a much different lens, and so we’re seeing a kind of reaction to the type of traditional American narrative that has propelled so much of the American Theater.
Lynn Nottage is a tremendously gifted writer, but strangely, this play feels dated and old school. There is an Arthur Miller/August Wilson sensibility at play here. It’s almost as if the Modernist movement has a new entry in its canon. There is something mid-nineteenth century going on here. Its slow development, complete with a prologue meant to set up a mystery, followed by a long scene of introduction and exposition, one has to wonder: what is she doing here?
The answer seems to be that she is interested in demonstrating the reality of the diminishing middle class, particularly in parts of the country that politicians have famously dubbed “the real America.” Originally premiering in 2015, this play benefits greatly from the current political crisis that we find ourselves in. There is a sensibility that race and economics cannot really be considered two separate issues in America. And we’re being run by a President that proves that on the daily.
Director Lisa Peterson holds true to very traditional theatrical elements. The play is episodic and didactic at times, and more often than not the dialogue is delivered by the actors as if every other line were underlined for emphasis. The earnestness of the performances almost entirely strips it of pathos. It feels like a deliberate point, and so when the climactic scene happens, we expect it. Completely. The most disappointing aspect of theatre at this particular time is that there is still a need to conform to tradition. There is an assimilated voice that keeps insisting we present plays in the same packaging that the’ve been presented in since the Ancient world. Film and television have evolved and continue to do so in ways that make them exciting and new. Theatre is just becoming a relic. A rich person’s night out. The fact that the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner holds nothing innovative or exciting about it should be upsetting to anyone interested in pursuing this art form. It continues to prove that the standard for theatre hasn’t changed, and probably isn’t about to anytime soon.
The production is a little preaching to the choir, and its notions and ideas about race relations in this country, while incredibly important and relevant, don’t really offer anything new to the conversation. And at two hours and thirty minutes it takes too long to make the statement it should have been able to make in less than two. And while the issues and themes are major, the work itself just isn’t.
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. L.A.
When: When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions); ends October 7
Tickets: $30-$99 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission)